Do people still do things just for the sake of the “common good”? In Farmington Public Schools they certainly do. Located in Oakland County in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, Farmington Public Schools serves a diverse community, comprised of many different cultures and people from a wide range of socio-economic statuses. The Farmington area has historically been known as a relatively wealthy community. But for more than the past decade, the area has seen poverty on the rise — currently about 25% of FPS students are eligible for food assistance. This presents challenges, as kids needing additional support struggle to learn, fit in, and make friends among kids from families with greater resources. In 2004, a dedicated group of Warner Middle School kids and teachers decided to do something about these challenges and when they did, Operation Common Good (OCG) was formed.
Operation Common Good began in Dr. Tera Shamey’s eighth-grade classroom, when the students heard of a homeless family living in a nearby community. They decided they could do something to help. They decorated paint cans, named their cause Operation Common Good after the core democratic value they had just studied, and went on their way collecting loose change and dollars from their school community. Within just two short weeks, they had collected over $3,000 in cash, along with donations of blankets, clothing and holiday presents. Not only did they help that original family, but they were able to provide assistance for three additional families, also living nearby. The results were impressive, but they would soon find that there was much more to do…much closer to home.
Shortly after the initial fundraising drive Dr. Shamey learned that there was a Warner family of six, a wonderful mother and her five amazing children, living in their car and staying at shelters when they could find available space. Hatty Ligon, one of the original OCG teacher volunteers, remembers it well, “I couldn’t believe we had homeless families right in our own school. Right in our own community…” Ligon, who is also a resident of Farmington Hills, was astounded to learn there were many children living in challenging circumstances right in her own backyard. That’s when the students and teachers running Operation Common Good made a decision. They would continue their work, but they would focus solely on helping children living in Farmington/Farmington Hills and attending Farmington Public Schools.
OCG’s origins are truly grass roots — and it grew organically. Over the next few years, Operation Common Good became a part of the fabric of Warner. The staff and students kept right on with their mission: to engage our students, teachers, and community to provide an equitable educational experience for all children attending Farmington Public Schools. They recognized that every child deserves the Farmington experience, regardless of their socio-economic status. OCG offers support for a variety of necessities, including field trips, school supplies, coats and winter gear, summer school, fifth grade camp, lunch money…and the list keeps growing.
At one point a student working to raise money for OCG was herself a recipient. Her fellow volunteers had absolutely no idea that her mom would come in after school hours, to pick up supplies and gift cards for clothes and other necessities for her children. It was inspiring to watch a student be so invested in helping others, knowing her family, too, was struggling.
As the kids and teachers raised thousands of dollars and helped hundreds of Warner students, those students would then move on to different schools. Unfortunately, their needs often persisted. As requests began to come in from across the district, OCG did not limit its support to students at Warner only. But by 2014, OCG and the Warner community alone couldn’t carry the load for a school district of over 9,000 students and 16 different school communities. In order to position OCG for greater reach within the district and with donors, OCG leaders began a new relationship with the Farmington/Farmington Hills Education Foundation in spring of 2014. This same year the teachers and students in charge of OCG reached out to the new superintendent of schools, Dr. George Heitsch, for his support. In September of 2014, Dr. Heitsch challenged every school to participate in “Hats for Hunger”, the very first district wide effort to raise money for OCG. Over $5,000 was collected in one day by asking staff and students to pay $1 to wear a hat to school, something the dress code doesn’t normally allow. Operation Common Good was officially on the map and was able to help many more FPS families struggling with poverty. Soon after, community members began asking what they could do to help, and eventually restaurants and businesses joined in support of the kids of Farmington and Farmington Hills.
Christian Beckwith, one of the students associated with OCG from the beginning, is now a student at the University of Michigan. He continues to volunteer his time to raise money for this cause. “It’s true what they say,” said Beckwith. “You really can change the world if you try. I love being a part of OCG. I love doing things that I know will help my peers and my neighbors. And little kids in my city that need simple things like snow pants should have them. No matter what, little kids shouldn’t have to worry about going out for recess because they can’t afford snow pants. They live in Michigan. They need the warm clothing in the winter to enjoy their lives.”
The directors of Operation Common Good are proud to say that funds raised go directly to supporting students and families in Farmington Public Schools. Operation Common Good exists to ensure that ALL FPS students have similar experiences including access to enrichments, field trips and much more. Partnerships with other local organizations allow OCG to offer additional resources to families that find themselves needing more. Elyse Jahnke, teacher and founding OCG advisory board member, reports that every fiscal decision for OCG is considered to ensure that the maximum of every penny goes to support a student or family’s needs.
Operation Common Good is truly a labor of love for every teacher and student involved. For fourteen years they have worked to ensure that the students of Farmington and Farmington Hills are growing up in a community that cares for them, especially when their need is the greatest.
Looking for an example of kids helping kids? Or teachers putting their hearts and souls into something they believe in? Look to Farmington Public Schools and Operation Common Good to see how it’s done. The t-shirts sold at this year’s fundraiser feature a quote by Margaret Meade that exemplifies the mission of OCG: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Farmington Public Schools and Operation Common Good are proving that to be true each and every day.